I am blessed beyond belief. I have a husband who is a veritable unicorn, family that love me, friends who support me, a good job, a good education. So why am I always bitching?
I’ve been listening more this year. To birds, water, the wind outside the car on the interstate. To my husband’s voice, my friends enjoying their new children, the assorted gurgles, snorts, yelps and barks that make up basset hound communiques. To myself.
I found myself complaining a lot. Some of it was general life-stuff that passes quickly – traffic, costs, a run in my tights, a dog-stomped toe, rotten salad in the fridge. Some of it stems from larger sources: work, finances, futurestuffs. Being chronically ill means a near-daily inventory of aches, pains, and difficulties so that I can properly report developments and improvements to the docs. There was a lot of complaining. I am also the sort of person for whom the immediate rage/rant response comes naturally, with thoughtful parsing of situations coming only after the initial flare. I’m passionate about a lot of things, and I tend to run hot. This doesn’t mean I can’t be thoughtful, just that it tends not to be my first response.
I got tired of listening to myself. I didn’t really want to be me anymore. Which made me wonder how on earth my friends and family must feel.
And so I decided to start living joyously in a very conscious way. The things I complain about that I can do something to alleviate, I will. The things I complain about that I have no control over, I am working to let slide over me with less hateful reaction and little mention.
I’ve surprised myself at how quickly this changes the tenor of life.
This Attack of the Polar Vortex makes things difficult health-wise, since my rheumatic disease does not respond well to changes in pressure, temperature, or humidity. But the past month has been transformative.
I had some luck with going gluten-lite, and before Christmas my doctor recommended the Virgin Diet: No corn, eggs, dairy, gluten, soy, peanuts, or sweeteners. While I can’t say I’m 100% virgin (hahaha), I’d probably come in at about 95%. And I can definitely tell the results. My historically histrionic digestive tract has become positively mellow (minus the recent bout of antibiotic-induced illness). I thought the research and arguments about sensitivities to those seven ingredients made sense when reading Dr. Virgin’s book, but the physical results have made me a believer. Post-script: you would not BELIEVE how many foods have unnecessary additions of corn, soy, gluten, and sweetener in them. My husband and I now deal only with real food, with only the occasional M&M or gelato slip.
I’ve finally realized the power of planning, something my mother has advocated since I was wee. I’ve found that preparing lunches for the week on Sunday, making sure we’re stocked with good food (or prepping dinners via crockpot on Sunday), keeping frozen fruit and coconut milk around for breakfast smoothies, and having a supportive spouse help immensely. Having that breakfast smoothie keeps me sated until lunchtime. Eating a real lunch (usually consisting of 1/2c brown rice, 1/2c black beans, 1/2c chopped chicken breast, 1/4 chopped avocado) keeps me sated until dinnertime. Forcing myself to take 30 minutes dedicated solely to lunch makes me feel better and keeps me feeling good through the end of the workday. Knowing we have the ingredients around for dinner keeps us from scrambling, and keeps me from making poor (*cough, curly fries, burgers, pizza, cough*) decisions. Yes, I realize that this is a “duh” realization, that this is a simple thing to do, but it requires the effort of Past Planner Me to make the life of Future Me healthy and easy. It’s a discipline, and one I haven’t had before now.
Swimming has been an incredible way to get my exercise in. I have been disappointed at regular workouts, and how the RA/AS limits me. I feel unfulfilled, even working with a trainer, because everything has to be low/no-impact on my joints. (Let me be honest. Working out was a way for me to burn of my various rages. I *LIKED* flipping that huge tractor tire. I *liked* huffingly and puffingly conquering the elliptical. A bare sheen of sweat from low impact exercise made me feel like time in the gym was a waste of time, because I didn’t feel wasted.
Along came swimming. I discovered that Speedo makes suits for us long-torsoed (read: big bellied/butted) women. I found that my gym has a heated lap pool and a hot tub. I discovered that that switch from doggy-paddling to swimming was minor, and the rewards from hauling back and forth the pool were major. It’s a whole-body workout that doesn’t make me overheat, since I’m already in the pool. I’m too busy trying to both move forward and breathe-not-drown to pay attention to whether anyone is looking at me. I feel light in the water. I can feel all of my muscles working – shoulders, legs, arms, back, sides – and it makes me happy. Super bonus: while it lends itself to a good all-over muscle ache and great sleep, it doesnt just not hurt my joints, it makes them feel lubed up. I can tell my range of motion has improved, and weather-induced inflammation isn’t as bad when I’ve been swimming. And so, I’m doing both doc-ordered water aerobics and my own lap swimming. And when I finish my laps, I am *proud* of myself. Bummed that I haul out of the pool fully tired at fifteen or so minutes, I calculated it and that’s how long it takes me to swim just over 300 yards. Three football fields. I can make my body swim that far, and I’m not in any good shape yet. I am excited to see how that will improve, and I am proud because it is more than the zero I could have done, and more than I would have guessed I could do.
I have been very conscious of downtime lately, both because I need it and because I hate feeling lazy. Thus, dilemma. My schedule has more downtime in it than many folks’, largely because overextension (a habit of mine) has deleterious effects on my health. I don’t want my free time to be wasted time. I have the good luck of having found an incredible partner – I want to squeeze every last drop from our time together. I want to be present and engaged. I wanted to find something non-stressful that I could do in the evenings while sitting with my husband, talking, catching up on our preferred shows, and snorgling the basset hounds. This past autumn I dusted off some old craft skills to start crocheting again, and rediscovered my love of creating things.
This is something I can do to engage my creative side while still paying full attention to my little family. I carry it along in the car. I occasionally stitch at lunch. I’ve found myself creating up a storm, which now needs some outlet. I can crochet square things, and am now stretching out into using new stitches. Knitting is on the list to learn. And I’ve become obsessed with quilting – designs, fabrics, how-to books. I now have a sewing machine and a fabric library. It’s odd how similar quilting and crocheting are to poetry. It brings me joy to bring something to life, especially things like blankets. I adore blankets. I usually have at least one wrapped around me at any given time at home. It makes me smile to think that something I made while thinking happy thoughts will warm someone’s home, body, and heart. I have fond memories of being wrapped up in my mother’s handmade blankets, and I take the opportunity to snuggle them whenever I make it home. There’s something missing from a manufactured piece, fancy as it may be.
With my husband’s full support, I’ve started a wee little business, less to make huge profit than in the interest of sharing little tangible bits of happy. I have the materials inventory, and am working on building up some saleable items. I’ll be fiddling with my first WordPress install here in the next few weekends, getting the site and Etsy shop up and running. A side-project, but one that brings me great happiness. I’ll let you know when it’s up and ready.
The Connection Between Self-Care and Joy
All of this self-care in terms of diet, activity, and time planning strikes me as incredibly selfish. It’s a lot of time spent on myself. But:
- I can be fully present in the moment, and enjoy time with my husband and dogs. They light up my life, and when I am out of commission, even if I am in the same room with them, I miss them.
- I can call friends to talk about their lives without feeling guilty about being a downer.
- I can be energetic at work, tackle new ideas and improve old ones.
- I am rediscovering old loves – writing, crafting, reading, teaching. I feel more like my old self, the happy, active self.
Joy is work, a matter of changing old habits and patterns and re-wiring my brain into new patterns. But the results, while good for me, are also good for others.
- It’s good for my husband when I am healthy, and we can spend our time together without illness and pain tying me to the couch.
- It’s good for my friends when I feel good, because I can be a better and more involved friend, more active in contact and more pleasant to talk to.
- It’s good for my coworkers when I am healthy, and can attend to work without impinging on them for coverage.
- It’s good for my students, when I can fully concentrate on them and help them find small pieces of happiness in accomplishing their work.
- It’s good for all the people who care about me, who dislike seeing me in pain, to see me return to the happy person they knew.
And so I am done with feeling selfish for doing the things that need doing to keep me healthy and sane. I need to prioritize my energy-spending, so that instead of doing fifteen things poorly, I can do five very well. Those activities with the biggest impacts on my health – diet, exercise, and planning – take a considerable amount of time and energy. I am making a conscious effort to celebrate this instead of resenting it (my past thought-pattern), since spending the energy on these things actually begets more energy. I have the unwavering support of my husband, my constant cheerleader, and of the friends I trust.
This is not to say I don’t complain anymore. I do. On occasion a stressor comes up, and I flare. But I am taking a step back, deciding what to spend my energy on. That very act has me making better decisions than I used to. With time, I hope this becomes second-nature. I can already see how being happier bleeds into my work in the classroom, with students, faculty, and library colleagues.
I wish you joy, and the courage to do what you must to pursue it.